Whether you want to beat the competition or outdo your own personal best, you may find yourself always looking for an advantage as an athlete. To that end, you may have heard buzz about ketone supplements and how they can boost your workouts by helping your body use fatty acids for fuel.
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But do they work as advertised? And are they healthy?
Registered dietitian Ariana Fiorita, RDN, LD, IFNCP discusses the pros and cons of ketone supplements and whether they can deliver what you need as an athlete.
How does ketosis work?
The first thing to understand, she says, is what it means when the body is in a state of ketosis.
The body typically burns carbohydrates to fuel muscles when you’re active. But if you don’t provide the carbs, the body will turn to fat.
“The term ketosis refers to a process when you restrict the human body of carbohydrates to the point where it begins to break down fatty acids for fuel,” Fiorita says. “Ketones are the byproduct of this breakdown.”
Ketosis occurs naturally after prolonged exercise, during starvation, when you’re fasting or when you’re following a diet that is very low in carbohydrates, such as the keto diet.
But reaching ketosis is difficult for some people.
Your body needs time to adjust to a low-carbohydrate diet. And you likely won’t feel or perform at your best during that process. That’s why some athletes look to supplements.
“People use ketone supplements in a situation when they would like to reach a state of ketosis more quickly or stay in a state of ketosis more efficiently,” says Fiorita.
How do you know whether ketone supplements are right for you?
“Ketone supplementation may help you get into ketosis, but it’s not providing your body with any form of nutrition or added metabolic health benefits,” says Fiorita.
She adds that you may think more clearly and notice appetite suppression when taking ketone supplements, but they don’t actually help your body burn fat.
To help understand if they’re beneficial for you as an athlete, Fiorita suggests that you ask yourself two questions:
- What type of athlete am I? “Endurance athletes (marathoners or triathletes) may benefit from a state of ketosis,” she says. “However, a strength and power athlete (sprinters, football players) will typically experience a decrease in performance due to the difference in energy systems being used.” In other words, your body typically functions better when it’s burning carbohydrates, especially for shorter periods of activity.
- Is my enhanced athletic performance worth certain trade-offs? For some, Fiorita says, the answer is yes. Ketone supplements can help an athlete consuming carbohydrates last longer during an activity without having to re-fuel. And it may help the already fat-adapted (ketogenic) athlete tap into his or her fat reserves for fuel, she says. But you need to understand that these supplements don’t really offer health benefits. They may actually even cause your body to store fat and increase insulin instead of burning your body fat for fuel, she says.
Consider a ketogenic diet
Despite the time involved and the sluggishness you may experience as your body adjusts to a ketogenic (low-carb, high-fat) diet, it may benefit you in the long run.
Fiorita says that following an entirely food-based ketogenic diet without supplementation is often beneficial to athletic performance, particularly for ultra-endurance athletes.
These diets work because our bodies can store significantly more fat than carbohydrates for use as a steady source of fuel for long-lasting sports, she says. Without additional supplementation, the human body will utilize its own fat reserves instead of relying on an outside source.
“Ultimately, the key is to team with a medical professional who is well trained in ketogenic diets in order to ensure that you are meeting your health and performance goals safely and effectively,” Fiorita concludes.